The Millionaires of Cape Roger Curtis: The Day the Music Died

I don’t want to talk about it, how you broke my heart…

By Neil Boyd and David Hocking

Fourteen 10 acre waterfront parcels are now for sale on the southwest tip of Bowen Island; it is anticipated that each lot will retail for about $2 million.

In late December of 2009, a 59 lot subdivision was approved for the 600 plus acres of Cape Roger Curtis, the apparent conclusion to a long battle over the appropriate use of this land. The current owners of the land, Don Ho and Edwin Lee, bought the property in 2004 for about $16 million, with the intention of developing it. Many Islanders were dismayed, because the previous owners had allowed day use of the southwest facing, low-bank waterfront property, treasured for its trails that took visitors through deep forests, along ocean bluffs, and past sunny beaches to reach an iconic lighthouse overlooking Georgia Straight. In the eyes of many, it was already a park, one of the very few places on our steep-sided island where those who didn’t own waterfront property could walk along a wild, untouched coastline.

The developers’ first approach was to proceed with a plan that was fairly similar to the present one: 10 acre lots, conforming to the subdivision by-law, with virtually no public access to the waterfront, but well under the possibility of the more than 220 lots contemplated by the official community plan (a density of one home for every 2.5 acres). Many of us were very much opposed to the 10 acre lots back in 2004; a public opinion poll established that the majority of islanders wanted more than 50 per cent of the land “protected from development” and more than 60 per cent of the shoreline “reserved for public access”. We hoped that the entire parcel would be purchased as a park, and if not, that at least a significant portion of the Cape would be purchased, again, as a park. In the 2005 municipal election, a mayoral candidate and one prospective councillor promised to save 50 per cent of the land as a park. The mayor won a landslide and the councillor topped the polls.

This new council strongly opposed the development plan, arguing that the public interest required conserving the majority of the coastline for ecosystem protection and recreation along waterfront trails, and the clustering of homes to minimize land disturbance. Instead of a traditional subdivision that followed the land use bylaw, council proposed a rezoning that followed sustainability principles. At first, the owners resisted, and began bulldozing a road into the forest. But in the face of continued public and council pressure, in 2006 they capitulated, hired a new development team, and set out to plan for a rezoning that would align with the stated public interest, as well as the sustainability agenda that Council was developing.

Between 2006 and 2008 the owners spent several million dollars, creating the vision of a neighbourhood that they hoped would be a legacy for the community and for themselves – a substantial waterfront park, a seniors centre that would allow aging in place, trails, and affordable housing. The only problem with the plan: in order to make it work economically – to have more than more 50 per cent of the entire property and 85 per cent of the coastline as park — the land densities would have to be increased beyond those provided in the official community plan: 390 market housing units, instead of 224, as well as additional units that the municipality required for affordable housing. The economist hired by the municipality agreed with the developer’s assessment – the densities provided for in the official community plan were simply not sufficient to make the neighbourhood plan economically realistic.

What did the council of the day do? After staff negotiated with the developers to reduce density as much as was possible, they went ahead with first reading of the new neighbourhood plan, believing that public consultation was needed to determine the community response to the park for density tradeoff. The new density was still to be an average of about one dwelling per acre, and most Bowen Islanders currently live on lots that are less than an acre in size. Further, the contemplated build-out for the neighbourhood plan was 25 years; it would not have produced a rapid spike in the population of the island – about 15 more people every year from about 2015 to 2040.

But at some point during the summer of 2008 the mayor lost his initial enthusiasm for the neighbourhood plan, and campaigned against it during the fall election of 2008. Trouble was, however, that the mayor told the developers that he had lost his enthusiasm for the plan just hours before he announced his decision publicly — no dialogue and no compromise. The developers were left to twist in the wind, vilified and caricatured as wealthy profiteers, foisting an urban vision on the rural life of Bowen islanders. More significantly, after the fall election of 2008, the new council reneged on the public consultation plan agreed upon by the previous council. Many on the new council expressed a clear preference for the politics of confrontation: one councillor spoke of the need to “drown” the neighbourhood plan.

In retrospect, what is so sad – what does break our hearts – is that the island hardened quickly into two factions, those in favour of the neighbourhood plan and those opposed. Most of those opposed probably believed that the 59 lots would never happen – that some combination of a public interest statement, and philanthropic or government contributions would save the day, ultimately transforming Cape Roger Curtis into a park. History shows this was a rather naïve strategy, inappropriately discounting both the ability of the owners to meet the requirements of subdivision and the deep pockets of the owners, relative to the municipality, should the municipality try to block the owners’ attempt to subdivide. There were also those who were not at all unhappy about the prospect of 59 large and entirely private lots for the very wealthy — at least Bowen’s potential future population would effectively be reduced. Most of us in favour were prepared to accept the increased density, given the many amenities that were provided, the sense of community that the neighbourhood plan would have created, and the historic opportunity to protect forever a significant parcel of the most ecologically and recreationally valuable land on the island.

Well, both sides lost. We’ve each lived on Bowen Island for a rather long time and each served three separate years as both a municipal councillor and the island’s representative to the government of Metro Vancouver. Bowen politics – largely a “take no prisoners” politics of confrontation – can take its toll. Sadly, what Cape Roger Curtis proves is that we don’t seem to be able to develop a constructive dialogue about change. We all too quickly take sides and entrench our positions.

How could our friendly small community with well-meaning politicians give us such a grim legacy: both the worst possible result for this majestic landscape, as well as a harshly divided community. Put differently, why did it happen?

Bowen’s leaders and traditions were not up to the task of dealing with a complex issue. Like most public policy conundrums, there was no easy, good-versus-bad decision. Instead, we had the usual situation: a series of tradeoffs, each with their benefits and costs. Antagonistic council meetings that tried to blame staff for the situation, petitions and leaflets aimed to drum up support for either side, along with a single town hall-style meeting where the public lined up at microphones to give impassioned defences for the positions they had already taken – that was the approach. In other words, no open dialogue, no listening, and no attempt to find compromise.

In the complex world in which we live it’s easy to find fault with pretty well everything, and in our public processes today, it is also easy to oppose things – to see black and white when grey is usually the better route forward. It will take strong leadership to take Bowen beyond its historic good guys versus bad guys mentality. It won’t be easy, but we’ve written this history with the hope that it might be possible.

If you enjoyed this post, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed!
  • Share/Bookmark

One Response to “The Millionaires of Cape Roger Curtis: The Day the Music Died”

  1. Cape Roger Curtis | Angela Huxham Says:

    […] from a late morning walk along the CRC trail on Bowen. After years of bitter controversy this beautiful cape was subdivided into ten-acre waterfront building lots- an outcome that […]

Leave a Reply